Devon CPRE responds to solar farm decision

Laura White
Laura White

Pyworthy solar farm approval shows the planning system is broken

Writing exclusively for The Moorlander, Devon CPRE Director Penny Mills has provided us with her response.

Once again, our planning system has been shown to be fundamentally broken; despite more than 200 objections and just three letters of support from local people (including the landowner), the residents of Pyworthy in north west Devon are now saddled with yet another solar farm.

Devon CPRE was dismayed when a committee of nine councillors, none of whom live in or anywhere near the village, approved the parish’s seventh and largest solar farm yet. Local residents were understandably disappointed, and angry too.

A little over a month since Boris Johnson made a party conference pledge to stop building on green fields, Torridge District Council has sacrificed more than 160-acres of good farmland to yet more solar panels. Pyworthy’s small community of less than 400 homes has now lost a cumulative total of more than 400 acres of farmland to industrial solar developments: the new Derril Water scheme will add another 76,000 solar panels, not to mention miles of security fencing, 85 CCTV cameras and concrete areas of hard-standing for battery storage.

The council, we know, will earn £162,000 per year in business rates from this 40-year scheme. Now that’s an awful lot of money, particularly in the current economic climate when local authorities are cash-strapped. To give a veneer of objectivity, individual councillors have to declare any pecuniary interest, yet the council itself doesn’t. How is it democratic for a public body which stands to benefit to the tune of almost £6.5 million pounds over four decades to have the power to determine such a planning application? It isn’t.

The huge amount of money that will accrue to the council every year is not a material planning consideration but was emphasised by its officers as a reason for approval. However, the committee considered residents’ objections, and those of two parish councils, as irrelevant.

One committee member even said the volume of objections should be taken ‘with a pinch of salt’. If decisions of such immense importance are made by representatives who, albeit elected, pay no heed to the feelings of the local community, what’s the point of people bothering to engage with planning consultations?

Councillors are voted in by local constituents but, when push comes to shove, whose interests do they represent? If local politicians aren’t seen to take the views of local people into consideration when determining plans of such magnitude, it’s legitimate to ask, whose interests are they representing?

At the start of each meeting, the councillors on any planning committee have to state that they come with an open mind. Yet, as a campaigning charity involved with local planning decisions over many years, isn’t it interesting that we were able to predict how this particular application would go?

We also told the residents of Pyworthy months ago, when this application was first submitted, that Derril Water would likely be permitted despite their opposition. We supported them all the same and mounted a campaign fronted by local resident, actor John Nettles.

He is shocked by the decision to approve this ‘monstrous scheme’ and can’t understand how the views of local people have been ignored. Sadly, Devon CPRE can, because we’ve seen this happen time and time again. And that’s why our planning system needs reform, just not the type put forward by the Government in last year’s ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper.

The COP26 Summit has recognised the need for us to focus on de-industrialisation, reforestation and land regeneration. Why then has Torridge decided to take some of the best pasture land in the world out of circulation for food production? It makes no sense. Solar energy in the UK is simply not an efficient use of agricultural land.

The need for a better planning system doesn’t just apply to renewables, of course. It’s relevant to any big planning application where big money is involved. Should plans committees vote to refuse a large development of any kind, big businesses and wealthy applicants have deep pockets to go to appeal.

At that stage, the equally flawed appeal system comes into play, allowing a government-appointed inspector with no connection to the local area to decide the matter, and there’s no right of appeal against his or her decision.

Torridge District Council is one small cog in the complex and unwieldy machinery of our current planning system. Torridge is no more at fault than any other local authority for a government mechanism that Devon CPRE believes is biased and undemocratic.

There were specific planning policy reasons why Derril Water solar farm could and should have been refused, but they went largely undiscussed.

We fear the same will happen with two similar planning applications in the pipeline in Torridge; we predict they will also get permitted. And solar farm developers know that if they keep their applications below 50MW, they won’t be subject to a higher level of scrutiny.

Ultimately, this latest solar farm approval has added grist to the mill in our demands for a fairer and more democratic planning system. That’s why Devon CPRE will be pressing Michael Gove, the new Housing Minister, for meaningful reform. Reform that gives a voice to local communities.

Local Life